Today I wanted to make sure to congratulate my friend Gillian Laub, an incredibly talented photographer and filmmaker, on last night’s release of her new documentary, Southern Rites. The film is not only well done, but it has also stirred controversy and opened up real change around a lingering issue in the South, which many people are still unaware of today (which is contextually relevant given the recent events in Baltimore and elsewhere around the country).
The inception of the film all started with Anna Rich, a very brave student at Montgomery County High School and a Spin subscriber, who wrote to the magazine in 2002 with a cry for help. She wanted someone to come down to Georgia to expose what was going on there; Anna was white and wasn’t allowed to take her black boyfriend to her high school prom because believe it or not, there as still s segregated prom in her hometown.
Although Spin’s editor received Anna’s letter after her prom had already passed, the town’s next segregated event would be held the following Fall. That’s when Gillian originally went down to Montgomery County to photograph the segregated homecoming festivities. “I was haunted by the place,” she noted, “on one hand because it felt like such a friendly, integrated, tight-knit community, but on the other hand, I had never seen such overt displays of racism. There was a real dissonance and I knew I needed to explore this place more.”
When the town was set to have its first integrated prom, society seemed ready, but much of Montgomery County wasn’t. What unfolded next was beyond words. Just as Anna expressed such courage in writing her letter, so did Gillian when she went back to document what happened this time.
I won’t ruin the meat of the documentary for everyone, but it’s really worth watching. It inspired Troy Carter and John Legend so much that they helped produce it and John wrote a song for it entitled, “We Still Believe”. It’s an amazing story of both courage and heartbreak and needed to be told.